Addressing the Return of ISIS Female Foreign Terrorist Fighters
“The phenomenon of individuals joining foreign terrorist groups is nothing new, however, it has not been seen at such a large scale. Now countries are left to determine how to handle foreign terrorist fighters who want to return home. This paper aims to address the issue of returning female foreign terrorist fighters from ISIS and the different policy avenues Western countries can implement.”
Image from Wikimedia Commons.
In March 2019, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was territorially defeated and lost control of the Islamic State (IS) it created. During its control, the group collected taxes, kept detailed records, and implemented its version of Sharia law. ISIS attracted thousands of individuals to join its organization. They employed gender-specific messaging to target women through their propaganda (Silberman 25). It is estimated between 3,500 and 4,500 Western foreign fighters joined its ranks. While the numbers could be underestimated, 13% to 20% of Western foreign fighters who traveled to join Jihadists groups in Syria were women (Silberman 10). These women were critical in establishing the IS, as they would birth the next generation, serve as a recruitment tool, and provide logistical support to the “state”.
Women’s roles within the IS varied from recruiters, doctors, fundraisers, and propagandists. Although it is hard to discern if women engaged in on-the-ground combat, women did have a role in an all-female police force known as the Al-khanssaa Brigade or morality police (Hisbah). This police force was notorious for being cruel and administering harsh punishments. For example, the punishment for women caught trying to escape was 60 lashes, while 40 lashes were given to women who did not wear the abaya or the appropriate dress code (Silberman 20). Umm Azma, a woman living under ISIS rule, said that the Hisbah preferred to use “the bitter”, also known as a metal-pronged tool constructed to clip chunks of flesh off. She observed her neighbor receiving punishment with the metal prongs for not wearing a headscarf, followed by being taken away for lashings, where the neighbor was never seen again (Kafanov 2016). It has also been noted that women in ISIS have participated in combative training, where they were trained to use snipers and work with landmines (Kafanov 2016). This is a stark contrast from the media-coined term “jihadi bride”, where the role women are most associated with playing once joining ISIS.
With the loss of territory and capture by Kurdish U.S. backed forces, members of ISIS now want to go home. The phenomenon of individuals joining foreign terrorist groups is nothing new, however, it has not been seen at such a large scale. Now countries are left to determine how to handle foreign terrorist fighters who want to return home. This paper aims to address the issue of returning female foreign terrorist fighters from ISIS and the different policy avenues Western countries can implement.
The Rise and Fall of ISIS: Context and History
ISIS’ control of territory made it the first terrorist organization of its kind. The group was an offshoot from Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). AQI was established in 2004 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was later killed in the United States (US) airstrike in 2006 (“ISIS Fast Facts”). Abu Ayyub al Masri took his place and later that year announced the establishment of an Islamic State in Iraq with Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as the group leader (Glenn et al.). The US presence in Iraq prompted the newly established group to remain quiet over the next few years; however, they began to resurface in 2011, taking advantage of the growing instability in Iraq and Syria (Glenn et al.). Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became leader in 2010 after Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was killed in an airstrike. In 2013 the IS expanded, gaining significant ground in Syria and renaming itself the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) (“ISIS Fast Facts”). On June 29, 2014, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, announced the establishment of a Caliphate after capturing Mosul (Chulov). The IS recruited over 40,000 individuals from 80 countries to join its group (Jenkins). At its peak, ISIS held territory in both Iraq and Syria and ran as a pseudo-state collecting taxes and providing social services (Farrall). In September 2014, US President Barack Obama sent troops into the region to fight back against ISIS along with its allies (Malsin). Through airstrikes and the US-backed forces (Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces) the IS finally fell in March 2019 (Hall).
ISIS Propaganda and Female Recruitment
Starting in 2013 and 2014, ISIS became highly effective in its recruitment strategy by using social media to attract foreign fighters. The organization released high quality production videos and took advantage of online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. In addition, it disseminated its propaganda through magazines tailored to specific audiences. Western-focused magazines, Daqib and Dar al-Islam, often featured women’s voices, which touched upon the issues of polygamy, sex slavery, the subjugation of women, and more (Lahoud 7). ISIS took advantage of the marginalization and alienation women were experiencing in the West due to their faith. For example, many countries in Europe have banned women from wearing full-face veils, thus making women the most stigmatized out of the Muslim population due to the outward appearance of their religious identity (European Islamophobia Report; BBC The Islamic veil across Europe). ISIS emphasized the incompatibility between western identity and religious identity through its propaganda, and highlighted many other push-and-pull factors that led women to join ISIS. Other factors include feeling that the Muslim community is being oppressed worldwide, anger and frustration over international inaction, belonging to a sisterhood, and romanticizing the adventure of joining ISIS (Saltman and Smith 8-13).
Female Foreign Fighters
The conflict in Syria and the rise of ISIS displaced thousands of people in Syria. With ISIS’s eminent territorial defeat, many people under ISIS rule fled to displacement camps. When ISIS fighters were captured during the final struggle to maintain ISIS territory, men were placed in detention centers and women and children were taken to the Al-Hol camp in Northeastern Syria. Since the arrival of these ISIS women, a radical shift in the Al-Hol camp, which houses internally displaced Syrians, has taken place. At the camp run by Kurdish forces, the women loyal to the IS have been terrorizing others and enforcing a strict dress code throughout the camp. According to intelligence officials, these loyalists formed cells inside the camp to issue punishments in a more systematic way (Cunningham). These punishments have included slashing tents and attacking individuals who do not adhere strictly to Sharia Law. These women in the camps will continue to spread ISIS ideology, which would be counterintuitive to defeating ISIS.
Defining the Problem
Even though the Caliphate no longer exists, its ideology remains present among a large number of individuals including those in the camp (Cunningham). There are, however, others such as Hoda Muthana, who “deeply” regret joining ISIS. The call to return home by Western female ISIS members has been highly publicized. Hoda Muthana joined ISIS in 2014 as an American 20-year-old, who was radicalized online. Once in Syria, she called for attacks in the West through social media (Callimachi and Yuhas). For instance, she tweeted, “Americans wake up! Men and women altogether. You have much to do while you live under our greatest enemy, enough of your sleeping! Go on drive-bys, and spill all of their blood, or rent a big truck and drive all over them. Veterans, Patriots, Memorial, etc day … Kill them” (Callimachi and Yuhas). Muthana now claims she was brainwashed into joining ISIS and believes she made a huge mistake in doing so (Chulov and McKernan).
Shamima Begum, another woman who joined ISIS, gained prominent spotlight in the media for her journey to Syria and her calls to return home to the UK. Begum left the UK for Syria when she was 15 years old with two other girls, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase (BBC). Begum insists she was brainwashed by the terrorist group and “really regretted everything” (Drury). There is no way of knowing exactly what Begum did once she was in Syria; however, reports indicate her active role in the morality police (Hall).
These two cases are just brushing the surface of the complexity of assessing the threat of returning female members of ISIS. Most women are being held in Al-Hol awaiting their fate. If the female ISIS members calls to return home are ignored, some women will continue to hold these radical beliefs, spread ISIS’ ideology, and participate in violent acts.
Assessing the Threat of Returning Foreign Terrorist Fighters
Each country perceives and analyzes threats differently. Understanding the complex issue of returning fighters, Yasmin Mulbocus, a former Islamic extremist, suggests to consider the “covenant of security” and to create policies, which make the country the safest (Mulbocus). In doing so, countries should consider the risk of returnees carrying out a domestic attack. Thomas Hegghammer’s research investigated the impact of Western fighters returning home after joining jihadi groups in places such as Afghanistan and Somalia over 20 years (Holmer). Hegghammer discovered that a clear minority of returning fighters presented a true and lethal risk. Between 1990 and 2010, “one in nine foreign fighters returned to their nations of birth to perpetrate attacks in the West” (Fejes 93). Scholars, such as Byman and Shapiro, believe that while a threat from foreign fighters exists, the actual risk is exaggerated because individuals are less likely to re-engage in terrorism as they age (Altier 2). Hence, even though some returnees may have the knowledge to carry out an attack, it is unlikely that an attack will occur.
Exploration of Outcomes
Various countries across the globe implement different policies to deal with Returning Foreign Terrorist Fighters (RFTFs). These policies include revoking citizenship, prosecution, disengagement and rehabilitation programs, or simply taking no action against those who left to join the IS.
a) Revoke citizenship
Allowing foreign fighters to return may not be a huge risk to national security; however, it can be widely unpopular to the public because of the perceived threat. Many countries have put in place laws to revoke an individual’s citizenship. According to the Global Database on Modes of Loss of Citizenship, more than 130 countries around the globe have such legislation, including 19 European Union (EU) Member States. Revoking a foreign terrorist fighter’s citizenship is one way to address the problem. It prevents re-entry of potential terrorists and in theory, reduces the security threat they pose. Further, it may serve as deterrence for future terrorist threats (Benton and Banulescu-Bogdan). It also sends a strong signal to fighters that the state regards their actions as a violation of their obligations as citizens and will no longer entitle them to state protection (Benton and Banulescu-Bogdan).
While revoking citizenship is a solution, it does bring up concerns. The first concern is the issue of being stateless. The right to nationality is considered an international human right. Being rendered stateless coincides with not having any identity documents, which makes it difficult to register a child’s birth, attend schools, access health care, obtain occupation or receive benefits. Countries such as the US, the UK, and Australia have stretched the limits of what is deemed acceptable in international law in regards to revoking citizenship (BBC). Towards the end of 2018, the Australian government revoked the citizenship of an Australian-born suspected IS terrorist on the basis that he was eligible for Fijian citizenship from his Fijian father, which was later disputed (Benton and Banulescu-Bogdan).
The second problem is that revocation can feed into the terrorists’ narrative that the West does not care about the Muslim population — and to a certain extent, it comes off as ignoring the repatriation of its citizens (Cornwall). This can thus backfire and fuel ISIS recruitment. Foreign fighters abroad will continue to be radicalized, spreading ISIS ideology to those around them. Women who fled to join ISIS and then had children have the ability to pass on their ideological fervor to their children. Further, “depriving someone of citizenship could push them further underground, or for those who are not the most serious offenders, prevent them from cooperating with law enforcement” (Benton and Banulescu-Bogdan).
The third issue is the targeting of citizens via drones once the state has revoked their citizenship. Information about what occurs to individuals who have lost their citizenship is not available in the public domain. According to a number of reports, two individuals who were stripped of their British citizenship were killed by American drone attacks (Benton and Banulescu-Bogdan). Also, targeting citizens who have traveled to Iraq and Syria leads to unintended casualties for those who do not pose a real threat. Many lawyers have argued, “depriving someone of citizenship releases governments from the obligation to intervene, because external protection by one’s government is one of the main rights of citizenship” (Benton and Banulescu-Bogdan).
Another route countries have taken is to prosecute RFTFs. Although countries have legislation in place to prosecute such crimes, it can become difficult to prosecute when presenting evidence against the defendant. A prosecution case against fighting on foreign soil would require witnesses and testimony from abroad, which can be difficult to obtain and verify. Instead, it is easier to prosecute under providing material support and handling weapons of mass destruction for terrorist organizations (Malet). Evidence is the key to prosecution, and without sufficient evidence, the case will not be successful. In December 2018, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted the addendum to the Madrid Guiding Principles, which contains 17 guiding principles to “stem the flow of foreign terrorist fighters” (S/2015/939 23 December 2015). These principles cover subjects such as “radicalization and recruitment to terrorism, handling different types of evidence, countering the financing of terrorism and preventing and combating the illicit trafficking of small arms and light weapons” (Ochab). It further addresses the challenges that come along with prosecution and introduces three principles to improve the “collection, handling, preservation and sharing of relevant information and evidence obtained from conflict zones, in accordance with domestic law and Member States” obligations under international law (Ochab). As evidence gathering improves, prosecution should become more common for RFTFs.
According to research, there is a discrepancy in sentencing between men and women. Audrey Alexander and Rebecca Turkington, a research fellow at the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism and Assistant Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), found that women were “less likely to be arrested, less likely to be convicted, and receive more lenient sentences compared to men.” The case of Keonna Thomas, a woman who attempted to provide material support to ISIS and was arrested in April 2015, was portrayed as “naive, misled, and out-of-touch with reality”, and having an inclination for love and romance, which led her to extremism (Alexander and Turkington 24-25). Though many believe women were groomed or duped into joining ISIS, many women were quite capable and knowledgeable of their actions. Therefore, women and men should be treated equally by the judicial system.
Hoda Muthana and Shamima Begum both shared the same push-and-pull factors in their decision to join ISIS. It is hard to gauge the authenticity of their regret. Although in some cases women do truly regret their decision, these women could be playing to the stereotypes of gender norms in order to obtain lesser punishment for their actions. These gender norms include a common understanding where “the essence of women is often perceived as less violent and more pacifist in nature in most societies” (Silberman 15). Men are perceived as physically stronger than women, able to protect themselves. These essentialized presumptions about gender roles are familiar, comfortable, but can be inaccurate (Silberman 15).
c) Disengagement and reintegration programs
Rather than revoking citizenship or prosecuting RFTFs, countries can establish disengagement and reintegration programs. These programs will aim to disengage individuals from violence, rather than try to change their belief system. The term “de-radicalization” has been exceedingly used in the counter-terrorism space. De-radicalization programs came about in the early 2000s in various countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Indonesia, Egypt, Malaysia, Singapore, and Morocco (Altier and Horgan 85). It is misguided to assume that “we need to de-radicalize terrorists in order to reduce the risk of re-engagement” (Altier and Horgan 88). Rather than focusing on beliefs, we need to focus on how or why they disengage or re-engage in violence (Altier and Horgan 88). The current focus needs to shift from de-radicalization to disengagement. This should be followed by reintegration into society. Individuals should be given the tools they need to transition, such as family support, mentors, job support, etc. It is important to highlight that each individual should be treated on a case-by-case basis; no two individuals experienced the same push and pull factors for engaging in violent extremism. Using disengagement and reintegration programs allows a country to tackle RFTFs head-on and manage risks. However, there are many challenges in accepting RFTFs.
One of the challenges of such programs is evaluating their success and whether it is working. It can be hard to monitor and keep track of all the individuals once they leave the program. There is always a possibility that someone can slip through the cracks and begin re-engaging in violence at home or abroad. Women tend to receive limited rehabilitation and reintegration support compared to men, which puts them at a potentially greater risk of recidivism and re-radicalization and risks their successful reintegration into society (“Gender Dimensions of the Response to Returning…”). Disengagement and reintegration programs run by governments should have a gendered approach to meet the needs of female returning foreign terrorist fighters.
Current Policies on RFTFs in the West
a) United Kingdom (UK)
The United Kingdom is one of the most advanced countries when it comes to dealing with terrorism and counter-terrorism. In 2016, the UK began a Disengagement and Desistance Program (DDP) under the umbrella of their CONTEST Counter-terrorism strategy. The DDP program is aimed to address the root causes of terrorism. The initial pilot program featured individuals who served prison sentences, who were due to be released on license. Soon after, the program expanded to include those on Terrorism Prevention Investigation Measures (TPIMs) and those who had returned from conflict zones in Syria or Iraq and are subject to Temporary Exclusion Orders (TEOs) (“”Preventing Terrorism and Radicalisation…” 1). To date, there are 116 individuals enrolled in the program; however, there is not an immense amount of public information about the DDP (Grierson 2019). The Home Office aspired to double the number of individuals enrolled in the program by June of 2019. It is unknown if the program has reached that capacity (Grierson 2019).
After Shamima Begum left the UK in 2015, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, announced that, if the girls wanted to return home to their families, they would be more than welcome to as long as others could convince them (Dodd et al). During the Members of Parliament Home Affairs Committee meeting, Mark Rowley, head of the counter-terrorism unit for the Metro Police, stated, “we have no evidence in this case that these three girls are responsible for any terrorist offences.” Furthermore, he stated that “the three girls were different to someone ‘running around in northern Iraq and Syria with Kalashnikovs’ who then apologized for having committed terrorist offences” (Dodd et al). This immediate response underscores the ill-equipped nature of UK law enforcement and their judgment, and current policies surrounding returning foreign terrorist fighters, especially when it comes to women. Women are not just victims of ISIS. Most, if not all, national security policy makers and law enforcement officials assume that women who joined ISIS were bored, naive, and out of touch with reality (Berkowitz and Qi 293).
UK laws are expansive when it comes to anti-terrorism legislation. It is against the law for any British national to “travel abroad to commit or prepare a terrorist offense, or to obtain training in terrorism, and suspects may be prosecuted in the UK for other acts of terrorism, even if the acts are committed overseas” (Global Legal Research Directorate). Under the British Nationality Act, the Secretary of State can deprive a person of his or her British citizenship, unless it would render the individual stateless (Global Legal Research Directorate). For example, Begum’s citizenship was revoked on the grounds of dual citizenship, even though she has never obtained her Bangladeshi citizenship, leaving her stateless. A staffer of the Mayor’s office in London gave her personal view of the case, stating: “if the media had not picked up on it, the British government would have given her support. Vulnerable young people were groomed into servicing ideology. As Shamima Begum was only 15 years old, she did not really know what she was doing” (Upadhyaya). This highlights the role that public opinion plays when it comes to the repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs). Public perception of a perceived threat can push one policy narrative over another. In this case, leaving Shamima without citizenship to the U.K. and support to leave the camps in Northern Syria.
b) United States of America (U.S.)
The U.S. was the first country in the world to ban foreign fighting. Individuals who join a foreign army or armed group as an officer, or join forces adverse to the U.S. can lose their citizenship under U.S. law (Malet). Around 250 to 300 Americans are thought to have left the country to join ISIS since 2015 (Vidino and Hughes 9).
Throughout American history, foreign fighters have been charged with violations that are easier to prove in court compared to charges of fighting on foreign soil. For example, rather than charging individuals with fighting on foreign soil, the government will charge them with providing material support for terrorist organizations. Therefore, prosecutions have been rare for foreign fighting. It has not been a precedent of the U.S. to prevent foreign fighters from returning by revoking their citizenship. However, this could soon change with the recent decision by the Trump administration to prevent Hoda Muthana from returning, as she does not qualify for citizenship (Callimachi and Yuhas). The U.S. claims that Muthana is not a U.S. citizen because her father held diplomatic status when she was born, barring her from returning to U.S. soil. This stance comes at a time when the President has called on other countries to repatriate its foreign fighters.
In 2016, Canada released a report stating that 20 percent of its extremist travelers to terrorist groups in Syria were women. The media indicated that there might be close to 21 Canadians detained by Kurdish forces in Syria, of whom the majority were women (Davis). Since early 2017, the Canadian government and several other independent organizations, reported that close to 60 extremist fighters have returned home to Canada, leaving 190 extremists still in conflicts abroad (Davis; Fejes 94). These numbers reveal that there could be as many as 38 female extremists abroad and 12 have returned (Davis). The 2018 Public Report on the Terrorism Threat to Canada does not address or consider the possibility that the ISIS women returning home could be a threat to the country’s security. In order to establish a policy on returning female foreign terrorist fighters, policy makers need to assess the threat and risk of these returning individuals.
Canada’s policy on RFTFs is a highly contentious issue. The debate continues as Rukmini’s podcast, Caliphate, brought to light a former ISIS foreign fighter who was living and working in Canada. Rukmini is a journalist for The New York Times, reporting on Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Within the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it states, “Every citizen of Canada has the right to enter, remain in and leave Canada.” So in theory the state cannot block an individual’s return. Ralph Goodale, the Minister of Public Safety, stated publicly “the Liberal government has no plans to repatriate Canadian IS foreign terrorists fighters, citing the possible danger to consular officials in what is still a war zone” (Gurski).
Recommendations & Conclusion
Given the various options countries can take to tackle RFTFs, it is best to implement a mixed approach. Revoking citizenship does not seem to be the best outcome to follow, as it impedes on human rights, continues to fuel radicalization, and ignores the threat foreign fighters pose. Individuals should be held accountable for their actions, including women. Shamima Begum, as discussed earlier, was part of the Hisbah and most likely engaged in violence. Not all women were innocent victims in the creation and continuation of the IS. In some cases, wives stood by their husbands as they enslaved Yazidi women and ISIS committed genocide against the Yazidi people. RFTFs should be prosecuted and women and men should be treated equally in this process. The United Nation’s Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate’s trends report found that “community perceptions [show] that men and boys are ascribed greater agency in their radicalization process and criticized for making the wrong choices. Whereas women are infantilized and not taken seriously, and the risk that they pose is underestimated, men and boys are subjected to harsher judgments that ignore their vulnerabilities and dismiss the level of manipulation that they may have experienced” (“Gender Dimensions of the Response to Returning…” 11). The gender norms surrounding women and violence must shift to have successful policy outcomes, where policymakers and practitioners recognize women’s agency and capability to carry out violence and hold them accountable for their actions.
Although prosecution may be challenging, it can serve as a deterrent to others in the future. Countries should increase intelligence sharing and new technologies for prosecution of RFTFs and their male counterparts. After prosecution and once individuals are released from prison, countries should make mandatory conditions for them to participate in disengagement and reintegration programs. These programs should focus on disengaging from violence rather than changing core beliefs. If resources are available, countries should try to monitor these individuals once they leave the program. Rather than creating and implementing programs based on a one-size-fits-all model, programs should target the specific needs of each individual to maximize success.
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 An Islamic State ruled by a caliph or chief Muslim ruler with conformity to Sharia law (Islamic religious code)